Humans have been creating art for many thousands of years. The earliest artwork discovered so far are cave paintings found in Spain. The paintings consist of hand stencils and simple geometric shapes and are approximately 64,000 years old. In a piece that ran in Psychology Today, Nathan Lents speculates about why humans create art. Art, he writes, is a visual recall of past events or emotions, and relies on “some knowledge and experience that is common between the artist and the audience…stored memories and associations in the brain.” Art can be an expression of beauty and can cause the viewer to have an emotional response. It is the link between art and emotion that has caused art therapy to be viewed as an important tool in the treatment of addiction and mental illness.
What Is Art Therapy?
In art therapy, a certified art therapist works with an individual client or group. The artistic form used can be painting, drawing, creating a collage, sculpting, or another visual arts technique. The client works on their artwork and afterward the art therapist will ask questions designed to encourage the client to think about the emotional and psychological aspects of their work: was creating the piece easy or difficult; any feelings about the process; any thoughts, feelings, or memories while working on the piece. According to Psychology Today, the therapist will guide the individual or group members to “decode the nonverbal messages, symbols, and metaphors often found in these art forms, which should lead to a better understanding of their feelings and behavior so they can move on to resolve deeper issues.” This form of therapy can be a powerful tool to help clients unlock their emotions and process feelings. It is especially beneficial when clients aren’t ready to talk about their feelings or experiences.
Using Art as a Therapeutic Tool
According to the American Art Therapy Association, art therapy is integrative in that it involves the mind, body, and spirit. Art therapy is “kinesthetic, sensory, perceptual, and symbolic.” It uses alternative modes of reception and expression, and “circumvents the limitations of language.” When art is used in a therapeutic setting, many benefits have been observed. Art therapy is particularly good at reducing stress. A 2017 research paper in the journal The Arts in Psychotherapy reports that the act of creating art lowers the cortisol level in the brain, known as the stress hormone. The act of creating art can give clients a sense of mastery and accomplishment, and that sense of mastery can carry over into other aspects of their lives. Similarly, working on a piece can also help develop emotional resilience—the ability to stick with something when it gets difficult.
According to an article in Psychology Today, art therapy improves symptoms of depression and anxiety and can help clients to deal with physical illness or disability. In addition, art therapy can reawaken memories which can help clients to deal with experiences that they may have repressed. The process of creating art is about “the association between creative choices and the client’s inner life.” One therapist noted that some people aren’t comfortable with talk therapy at first, and that their brains, in effect, shut down. Art therapy is great for these clients because they don’t have to talk right away and the art itself gives them something to talk about. Therapists working in clinical settings have also noted that art therapy can promote relaxation, improve communication, increase mindfulness, improve immune system function, and increase engagement in meditative practices.
Art Therapy as an Aid to Addiction Recovery
Art therapy is an important tool in addiction recovery. According to an article by David Sack, M.D. in Psychology Today, “addiction stifles creativity, but creativity can play an important role in recovery from the disease…Creative approaches such as art therapy…allow people to express difficult thoughts, memories, and feelings without being constrained by words.” Addicts struggle with guilt and shame, which can be “difficult to put into words,” notes Sack, while “Creative approaches can help them process these feelings so they don’t trigger a relapse.”
Sack also notes that art therapy offers clients a “chance for vicarious healing,” in that a client can experience healing through someone else’s artistic expression. Art therapy can be a “stepping stone to eventually talking about pain instead of [using] drugs or alcohol.” Sack also notes that art therapy is fun and increases a client’s sense of playfulness, as well as giving them more control over their environment. In addition, clients can experience the sensation of flow as they become lost in creating, leading them to feel more present and fulfilled.
Art therapy can increase someone’s motivation to stay in treatment and can ease the feelings of loneliness and boredom that people can experience when they are newly sober. Also, creating art gives them a tangible reminder of their time in treatment for their addiction and can provide someone a new passion or connect them to a hobby they used to enjoy before drugs or alcohol took over their lives. As a part of an aftercare plan, people can be encouraged to create art during the time that they would use to drink or use. As an article that was published on www.
crisis prevention.com states, “Art therapy is all about replacing a negative coping technique with a positive one.”
An effective addiction recovery plan addresses the needs of the whole person, not just the addictive behavior, with a variety of holistic treatment modalities in addition to traditional talk therapy, 12-Step meetings, and medically assisted detox. An important part of recovery is finding healthy coping mechanisms to manage the difficult and painful feelings that are an inevitable part of life without returning to drugs or alcohol. Also, the time that a person used to spend drinking or using must be filled with better activities. Art therapy is a powerful holistic treatment modality in recovery–it reduces stress and muscle tension, boosts immune system function, and increases self-esteem and self-awareness. Creating art is an excellent way to fill the time that used to be spent drinking or using. If you are interested in exploring art therapy and other alternative therapies as part of your recovery journey, call Enlightened Solutions at (833) 801-5483.